If you follow me on Instagram
, you might have seen that I recently made a visit to Rungis, the biggest professional fresh market in Europe. Conveniently located, not too far from where we live in Paris, in Rungis.
Rungis Market was build in the sixties, to replace the old market (les Halles), that until that time was held in the middle of Paris, at the place where you can now find Les Halles shopping center. Rungis is an immense site, huge, with toll ports to enter and a surface of 234 hectare. Our guide, who used to work at the fish market for 28 years, told us it’s a city in itself. Rungis has hotels, restaurants but also a medical clinic and it’s own police office. I’ve even seen a travel agency and they have their own ice factory!
Instead of bike paths, there are cart paths!
With over 11.000 employees, this market has everything they need to do their daily business and accommodate the numerous visitors (retailers, caterers and supermarkets). I even wonder if you can call it a market, with so many different halls. Some halls are quite far away form the others, and with the heavy traffic (trucks!) you really need a car to get from one venue to another. Rungis markets seems more appropriate.
Wonderful cheese from the Auvergne
Now, before I go any further, let me start with a warning: this post contains images of all halls of Rungis, including ones of the meat hall and thus various animals / animal parts. You might find them too graphic or disturbing, but they are part of the Rungs experience. I know not all of you will appreciate them, and so I thought I needed to tell you before you scroll down and might be (unpleasantly) surprised.
Hall A4, the fish hall
For all of you still here, let me tell you how this day started. Better call it night, as my alarm went off at 3.00 AM. That was kind of tough, but we had to be at the fish hall at 4.00 AM. After a quick breakfast we took off, and the closer we came to Rungis, the more obvious it was that we were by no means the only ones getting up this early.
Looking ridiculously excited (at 4 AM in my big coat + a white lab coat)
Au contraire, Nico (our guide) told us work at the fish hall starts at 21.00 PM, when they start preparing everything and the first deliveries fresh from the sea arrive. The fish hall is the first to open, at 2.00 AM the first customers arrive, trying to buy the catch of the day.
We started of quietly with coffee in one of the restaurants (on these occasions I really wish I’d drink coffee, my tea just wasn’t cutting it, caffeine-wise). Still half asleep, the first thing I noticed was what other people were drinking; beer and wine! Which makes sense if you know that they might have started their ‘workday’ seven hours before. It’s about time for a drink after a night full of hard work you’d say!
Fish in all shapes and colours
Then, Nico took us to the fish hall, to see if there was anything interesting left. For me, there certainly was! From blue crab to huge tunas or frog legs, it felt like a candy store for seafood lovers.
Oursin: Sea Urchin
One thing that struck me, was how friendly everyone was. Of course this had something to do with the fact that Nico had worked in that hall for 28 years, and knew almost everyone there.
The fish hall
But as our visit continued, I found that vendors in the other halls were equally friendly and welcoming. They all didn’t seem to mind the fact that yet another tour (there are plenty of groups visiting each day) was visiting their stall, and we were welcomed everywhere.
Frog leg, anyone?
Each hall has it’s own supervisor, recognizable by his (or hers, but I only saw male supervisors) hat. They make sure everything runs smoothly and things stay neat and clean.
A huge yellow fin tuna
This brings me to another thing that surprised me, the cleanness of each hall. At normal outdoor markets you can see trashcans and often there’s a certain, how shall I put it, odeur. But not here, everything was squeeky clean, even the meat section.
The meat hall
After our visit to the fish hall, we went over to the meat hall (and yes, we had to take the car for this, walking at Rungis when it’s dark without good sidewalks but with truck drivers who are in a hurry to get the goods delivered on time, is a safety risk).
Pigs in the meat hall (shown by our guide)
The meat hall is not suitable for sensitive visitors. Even though the principle is actually the same as at the fish hall, seeing half a cow is still more upsetting for most people than seeing half a lobster for some reason.
Cows at the meat hall
All the meat is labeled and has it’s own barcode, scanning it will show you exactly where the meat came from, what kind of race it is etc.
Côte de boeuf
Once you make a purchase, you can’t simply walk out of the hall with half a cow on your shoulder (that would have been a spectacle, but those days are gone). The meat is now labeled to be yours and transported via the shipping area in the same building.
Such a beautiful little pig
After the ‘regular’ meat, it was time to go to the offal hall, were I expected to be a bit creeped out. Tiny disappointment, there was not that much to creep out about. No entire heads or other noticeable stuff. One might argue that the bloody brains in individual plastic boxes are enough to make you shiver, but they were not really what I was after. Still good enough for a ‘Nightmare on Elmstreet-esque’ picture!
Nightmare on Elmstreet
As we all now, offal makes you thirsty, and so we went for another coffee stop. It was about 5.30 AM and again we were the only ones to order coffee/tea and croissants. The rest of the clientele (all in stained aprons) of the very busy restaurant was working their way through big entrecotes, heaps of fries and glasses of red wine.
Sunrise over Rungis
When we left, the waiter even wished us a ‘bon fin du jour’ (good end of the day/good evening) without any irony.
Time for our final ‘animal’ hall: the poultry one, conveniently attached to the restaurant we had our drinks. All sorts of chickens, ducks and geese are for sale here, but I also saw a lot of processed foods. Nico told us this is a trend that seems hard to stop, people want ‘easy’ food, of which it is sometimes hard to recognize from which animal it originates. There are, even at a professional market as Rungis, more and more products for sale that are ready to use instantly. Not only for us consumers, but also for the professionals who buy here!
A cheese called ‘trouser button’ :-)
Next stop: dairy and cheese! Walking through a hall with cheeses from all over the world, I started getting an appetite for the first time that morning.
Another funny name, when pronounced fast, cru sounds a bit like like cul (look it up…)
Smelling all those aromas, no matter how stinky, meant I felt hungry all of the sudden! We saw cheeses that were huge and weighed no less than 70 kilos. I still wonder how they transport those, must be quite a job to even lift one.
There’s one hall at Rungis where they sell fresh products you can’t eat: the flower hall. And being Dutch (the Netherlands is one of the biggest flower exporting countries in the world) I found it pleasing to see that most flowers originated from the big Dutch flower market. Not that there was a shortage of Dutch products, there was Dutch cheese (of course, our Gouda goes everywhere), a lot of Dutch (shell) fish and meat. One thing I was surprised to hear about, was the amount of Dutch offal sold at this French market.
And more cheese, can you tell I like the cheese hall?
On the other hand, it shouldn’t be such a surprise, offal isn’t eaten often in the Netherlands, so they are transported to countries where they do appreciate it. Which I am happy about. I eat meat, though in moderation and preferably free-range, and I prefer the idea of eating the entire animal rather than throwing half of it away.
Blossom in the flower hall
After the flowers (which are nice, but I can’t eat them and so I have less interest in them…) it was time for the final halls: fruit and vegetables. Fruit and vegetables are sold in three different halls, the first one selling only products form local farmers around Paris.
Carrots straight from the land
As it was half March, there was not a lot for sale in that hall. Some potatoes, the first tomatoes (from greenhouses of course) and a few very tiny radishes. As we went on to the second vegetable hall, we saw huge radishes, obviously imported from a much sunnier place. The vegetable halls are busy! That’s partly due to the fact that they are smaller and narrower than the others, but also because of the sheer amount of vendors there.
Fruit and vegetable hall
For comparison, there are 55 fish and seafood companies active at Rungis, against 338 for fruit and vegetables. You can imagine how much busier a hall gets with 338 different carts moving food around, and on top of that this is one of the few halls were buyers leave with what they buy straight from the hall, there’s no shipping area.
I guess it’s this relative chaos and lack of space, that made these halls feel less ‘friendly’ than the others. People simply didn’t have time or space to accommodate everyone who visited the narrow hall, let alone a group of visitors on a tour.
It was 8.30 AM, my feet hurt, it was cold and I felt like I had been up for ages (which I was, kind of). Time to call it a day (er.. night) and we said goodbye to Nico, who told me that even now as a retired man, he still woke up at 2 AM every night. It’s a habit he probably never looses.
Time for breakfast! We went to one of the brasseries and sat down. I asked the waitress what they had for breakfast and she told me there wasn’t a real breakfast menu, but she could ask the chef to prepare us some eggs or we could have a croissant? We took a quick look at what everyone else was eating and the decision was easy. We too ordered entrecote frites, bien saignant please, and with mayonaise for the frites (indispensable if you’re Dutch). We skipped the wine though, this needs a bit more of Rungis training!